When is a Western not a Western?
In the hands of minimalist filmmaker Kelly Reichart the usual elements of the classic oater — lots of gunplay, a clearly identified villain, melodrama percolating against a beautiful Western landscape — are either not present or subverted into something entirely new.
Set in the 1840s, Meek’s Cutoff follows a tiny wagon train — just three couples — winding its way westward toward the lush Pacific Northwest.
But the world in which the movie unfolds is anything but green and lush. These weary travelers are slogging through the Great American Desert. There are no trees to speak of and, as time goes by, precious little water.
The couples (played by Will Patton and Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Zoey Kazan, Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) have been on the march for weeks and are starting to lose faith in their buckskinned scout, Meek (Bruce Greenwood, so hirsute he’s practically in disguise).
For one thing, Meek is a blowhard playing his role of veteran frontiersman to the hilt. He’s full of colorful stories which may or may not be true.
More to the point, Meek has gotten the little caravan lost. “We’re not lost. We’re finding our way,” he assures them.
That’s of little comfort to Emily (Williams), a smart, strong-willed woman clearly chafing under her limited role as cook and wagon driver (when the menfolk convene to discuss their situation, the women are pointedly excluded).
Her antipathy toward Meek only grows when the scout captures and brings into camp a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux). Meeks wants to shoot the captive outright but the “civilians” have other ideas. This red man knows the country...perhaps he can lead them to water.
Emily tries to befriend this exotic visitor, but gets little response. The Indian, trussed up at night to prevent escape, sings to himself. Perhaps he’s getting ready to die.
In any case, he seems utterly indifferent to these white people. Maybe he regards them as some sort of hallucination, as devils sent to test him.
Meek’s Cutoff is an exquisitely shot film, but not a pretty one. The cinematographer and production values are beyond reproach, but the landscape is one of yellowed grass and cracked alkaline flats, not the majestic mountains or mesas we’re used to from the genre.
And while the stakes are nothing less than life or death, the film’s pace is unhurried...sometimes maddeningly so. With few dramatic highs even the slightest shift in tone or attitude seems momentous.
Also sure to perplex some viewers is Reichart’s reluctance to give us a clear-cut conclusion.
But that’s par for the course for Reichart, widely regarded as her generation’s premiere cinematic minimalist.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes “minimalism” as “based on the extreme restriction of a work’s contents to a bare minimum of necessary elements...characterized by a bareness or starkness of vocabulary or of dramatic setting and a reticence verging on or even becoming silence.”
That pretty much describe’s Meek’s Cutoff...and Reichart’s other recent features.
In Old Joy (2006) two guy pals (Daniel London, Will Oldham), out of contact for several years, go on a camping trip to get reacquainted. It slowly becomes clear that whatever held them together is gone; one of them remains a rootless, latter-day hippie, while the other is married, soon to be a father and about to be swallowed up by the great middle class.
Wendy and Lucy finds Michelle Williams playing a waifish drifter stranded by car trouble in a small Northwestern town where she loses her beloved dog.
In both of those films, as with Meek’s Crossing, not all that much happens in the conventional theatrical sense. But Reichart’s movies cast quiet spells; often they linger in the memory far longer than big dramatic spectacles.
Curiously, her next film sounds more conventionally melodramatic. Night Moves is about three environmentalists who plot to blow up a dam.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.